Music Monday: Offa Rex Writes a Love Letter to the Most Beloved Folk Records

An interview with singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney of Offa Rex, her latest collaboration with indie-rock band the Decemberists. Plus, we premiere the band's new song "The Old Churchyard."

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Listening to The Queen of Hearts, the debut album by Offa Rex, is a bit like traveling back in time. The project, a collaboration between singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney and the indie-rock band the Decemberists, is a love letter to British folk music and an experiment in bridging musical sensibilities and finding common ground in the shared histories recounted in these classic songs.

Their first single, "The Queen of Hearts," perfectly captures the spirit of this record, with magical harpsichord sounds and Olivia's angelic vocals that are an escapist dream in these current times. And we are excited to premiere "The Old Churchyard," a beautiful, slow-burning hymn that feels like a warm embrace. The record is an excellent introduction to the genre, with Olivia and Colin Meloy, the Decemberists' lead singer and guitarist, selecting and arranging songs that capture the spirit of the originals while putting their own modern spin on them. Olivia and I chatted on the phone about her love for the genre, planning a record over email, and folk music's socialist sensibilities.

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Laia Garcia: What attracted you to this genre of music?

Olivia Chaney: It's hard to explain without it sounding a bit mad. I think whenever I play I'm always trying to communicate things that are on a rather inexplicable level. For me, folk is an incredibly broad term, it's really music from all over the world, from ancient, kind of ritualistic cultures to the Victorians. It helps me feel rooted as a musician, I think.

There's some Johnny Rotten quote — I can't remember quite what he says — but it's kind of at that root, like if you want to know a culture, you just look at its traditional music and you'll find out so much about that society or whatever. For me, it does tell you so much, it communicates so much. Also, I'm not a prolific writer!

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LG: How did this collaboration with the Decemberists come up?

OC: Yeah, so, it was really a thing where Colin tweeted something about me that was very sweet, and I didn't know that he knew my records or anything. I was in the middle of a big tour for my album, and I responded, and then he was like, "Oh, come and open for us." And then literally within hours, our agents had hooked up. A few months later, I was back on the road with them, and we just all got on really well. They were all very supportive, and their crowds were really lovely to play for. It was kind of pleasant. We were surprised by the whole experience. While we were on tour, Colin would say things like "Hey, have you ever considered having a band?" and "You should come out to Portland, you should come and work with Tucker [Martine, who produced The Queen of Hearts and had previously worked with the Decemberists]." But it was kind of, you know, friendly banter, and then I left the tour and that was it, we all waved goodbye.

Quite a while later, I got this email out of the blue from him saying, "I've been thinking about this, let's make a record together." I suppose we both had time out and then came together.

We emailed a lot about what kind of angle we wanted to take and some lists of songs and stuff. I think [I have a more] loosey-goosey approach, and his was more like, "No, this is a love letter to those folk records." I am quite proud of what we achieved, because it is a genuine mishmash.

LG: Was it strange to be recording this sort of very British music in a studio in Portland with a bunch of Americans? Did you think it helped you take this record to another place?

OC: It was the only way we could've done it, and I don't mean practically, I mean conceptually.

I think having an English singer who's, in his eyes, very much an "English folk singer," was part of the concept for him. It's like "She's coming over to our territory" in a sense, and it was meant to be a fusion of those things.

LG: I've just read that there was a bit of hesitation on your part to include "Blackleg Miner" because of its subject matter, whereas Colin was really pushing for it. Did you ever feel a sense of ownership over these songs because of your background?

OC: That's a really great question, and it kind of ties in with the evolution of the whole project. The meeting between mine and Colin's brains [and our sensibilities], and I think the song list, is definitely a reflection of that. There were certainly a few on there that I was like, I don't know, like "Bonnie May" for example. I was really unsure about doing that because June Tabor sings one of the most beloved famous versions.

You know, [when you're a really traditional folk singer, the critique is] "They don't even write their own stuff," but the irony is they often do kind of write their own stuff within that tradition. [When you record a song, you can] slightly rewrite the text, and then they will find another tune. There's actually a huge amount of creativity in that world.

Partly because of this project, I've had some really interesting conversations with some of these great musicians, and they all have very different takes on what you're trying to ask about, which is a sense of ownership towards a song. Some of them are in keeping with the more socialist politics of that world, they're just like, "No, it doesn't belong to anyone, it's the music of the people," but sometimes it can be justifiably territorial, because they might have practically written the version that we've come to know.

LG: We are premiering the video for "Old Churchyard." What's your relationship to that song? Why did you want to include it in the record?

OC: I learned that song from a record by the legendary English folk-singing group the Watersons. But they got the song from an American folk singer, I'm not sure how long ago. It's a wonderful [song], and it definitely doesn't sound American. I like to imagine how the first settlers traveled from the British Isles over to America, and how that music evolved in America and then this English singing group in the '60s learned this song, so it sort of made its way back. And then I traveled from England over the ocean back to America and sang this song. I just kind of thought that was a nice cyclical thing.

It's a song that I was doing at a lot of gigs in a very un-folky scene. I used to sing it a cappella on my own a lot. I wouldn't regard myself as devoutly religious, but there's something about that text that I think is quite mystical or beautiful.

LG: One last question: Where did the name for the band come from?

OC: For the band? I think I'll give you Colin's number, and then you can ask him [laughs]. Yeah, my God, that was the journey. He came up with it, he takes all the credit. I love it, but it took us a long time to get to it. We were sending loads of emails to and fro. He had an idea [for a name] he wanted that I didn't really like, and he was like, "Well, you come up with some suggestions then," and I said, "I've never even tried to have a band name, I can't claim to come up with a band name, I'm just Olivia Chaney." So yeah, it was all him.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.

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